Uganda is at political cross-roads due to raw power contestation between re-elected president Yoweri Museveni, who has been president for 30 years, and the Opposition led by Dr Kizza Besigye, a four-time presidential election loser. Like in the past, Dr Besigye has rejected as “sham” the outcome of the February 18, presidential vote whose results the former Independent candidate Amama Mbabazi is challenging at the Supreme Court.
Heavily-armed soldiers have placed the capital, Kampala’s, central business district under a lock down and continue to patrol other urban areas, dissent is criminalised, critical social media posts invite arrests and a more militant police have found a new target to prey on: journalists.
In the past fortnight since the presidential election was held, the Human Rights Network for Journalists – Uganda (HRNJ-U), estimates that about 20 journalists have been detained, and all released without charge, for covering the police’s handling of Dr Besigye, who stood on the Oppositon Forum for Democratic Change (FDC) party ticket.
Ms Remmy Bahati, a Nile Broadcasting Services (NBS) television reporter, has come to symbolise media practitioners caught in the crosshairs following her brutal arrest this week while reporting live events unfolding at Dr Besigye’s home in Kasangati, about 15 kilometre from the city centre.
It was the last of 10-days within which any aggrieved party could challenge the presidential election results, and journalist huddled close to the politician’s residence to establish if he would eventually take the court option.
But police, who effectively placed Dr Besigye under house arrest since the election day, had other ideas. They placed all the journalists on surveillance throughout the day, closely monitoring what they reported, before closing in to brutally arrest those that spurned their orders to vacate the place.
Police officers chased an out-of-breathe Bahati, still giving live updates to the studio, through an open field and cornered and subdued her on the slope of a dirt road. They twisted her arm to the back and her undergarments were exposed when she bent over to a position of less pain.
And the FDC mobilisation secretary Ingrid Turinawe, who raced to the journalists’ aid, like in past incidents involving her, was promptly seized by police and together with Ms Bahati, bundled in the dreaded police van used to haul Dr Besigye between his home and police custody.
They were driven at break-neck speed to Kasangati Police Station, and hauled into the cells, mixing with other criminal suspects.
Narrating her experience in the infamous blue van to fellow journalists shortly after regaining her freedom, Ms Bahati recalls of how she was tightly sandwiched between well-built men and could not wiggle any part of her body until they reached the police station.
In claims we could not independently verify, the journalist said while inside the dreaded van, male officers fondled her breasts and that they even manhandled Ms Turinawe, with her top plucked off and chest left bare.
Both Ugandan and international human rights activists and media freedom defenders have criticised the brutal arrests, one in several that demonstrate unprecedented police aggressiveness against journalists.
Police say journalists covering the state’s placement of Dr Besigye under informal house arrest since the February 18, vote are behaving like “Opposition politicians” and “inciting” the masses. The presence of the media has exposed in real time excessive use of force by police to either arrest Dr Besigye or to prevent visitors from accessing his residence.
After the distasteful arrest of Ms Bahati, which came a day after her colleague was picked up while reporting live from the same venue, police deputy spokesperson Polly Namaye accused the journalists of “obstructing police officers on duty and disobeying their lawful orders”.
The presumed lawful order was for the journalists to disperse so that the public would not be able to watch whatever the Force did to or with Dr Besigye.
In explaining away the intensified harassment, Ms Namaye noted that: “The Uganda Police Force [on] March 1, arrested three people for obstructing police officers on duty and disobeying lawful orders given to them by Kasangati Division police commander SP James Kawalya.”
“Those arrested, she recounted, “are [journalists] Sempijja Ismail, Remmy Bahati and Ingrid Turinawe.”
SP Kawalya has shot to infamy this season the way now police sector commander for eastern region Sam Omalla distinguished himself in containing Dr Besigye and the media during the 2011 walk-to-work demonstrations in which dozens were shot dead, injured or incarcerated.
Mr Isaac Kasamani, a former Daily Monitor lead photographer during the walk-to-work protests and currently a freelance photographer with AFP, was last month a target when police sprayed pepper into his eyes.
Whereas Ms Bahati, while covering this newspaper’s closure by the government in 2013 wrestled down a female police officer who tried to assault her, it was not immediately clear if her manhandling last week was a result of grudge the Force carried forward.
“As human rights defenders, we hold such people [perpetrators] perpetuating impunity accountable. It does not matter when the accountability will be done, but one day, they will have to because these acts are being recorded,” said Dr Livingstone Sewanyana, the executive director of the Foundation for Human Rights Initiative.
The largely State-owned The New Vision newspaper last Wednesday reported that the former police director of operations, Mr Andrew Felix Kaweesi, who has unusually been recalled from superintending the Force’s Human Resource directorate to superintend the anti-Besigye operations, had banned all live broadcast from the Opposition politician’s residence claiming it incited violence.
Police are yet to explain how live reporting incites violence or provide evidence of any violence that has been sparked by the real-time news transmission.
“Obviously, the police don’t want live broadcasts of their siege of Dr Besigye’s home because it puts them in bad light,” Dr Peter Mwesige, media academic, trainer and executive director of the Africa Centre for Media Excellence, said. He added: “However, I urge the journalists covering Dr Besigye and the police not to place themselves in avoidable danger.”
The question of journalists’ safety in precarious situations has since the increased police crackdown put media houses that employ them on the spot, especially where reporters, photojournalists and cameramen are deployed in the field without protective gear such as bullet-proof/flak jackets and helmets.
Dr Besigye ran a campaign of defiance, not compliance, and his outright rejection of the results and his sponsoring FDC party’s pledge to engage the population has the country’s security and intelligence outfits on the tenterhooks and second-guessing this undisclosed Opposition game-plan.
The current clampdown on the media in violation of constitutional guarantees, lawyers and academics say, manifests the overall whittling down of the space for free expression and deliberate curtailment of civil liberties.
It also heralds the hazards of a militarised Uganda Police Force, said James Nangwala, Monitor Publications’ external lawyer, who has successfully handled several cases involving journalists.
“I am surprised that the defenders of the law are instead perpetuating the suppression of the right to information. There must be something sinister that they are concealing,” he said, adding: “If there is nothing they are concealing, then why should they block journalists from covering them?”
Attacking media practitioners is a “backward” approach, Dr Mwesige said, saying such indiscretions should be roundly condemned.
He said the police are the ones at fault for inciting or unleashing violence and that journalists have the right and duty to shine the torch on their illegal actions.
According to Mr Robert Ssempala, the national coordinator Human Rights Network for Journalists - Uganda, about 20 journalists have been arrested in the past fortnight. Their crime, he said, according to police, is keeping watch on and reporting about police’s handling of Dr Besigye, whom FDC president Maj Gen Mugisha Muntu said on Wednesday had been arrested nine times in 11 days.
What other players say
Human rights defenders described the ongoing stifling of the media freedom by the police as being acts of “impunity” and that the masterminds should be sanctioned.
Quoting the amended 1995 Constitution, Makererere law don Prof Ben Twinomugisha said both Articles 29 and 40, respectively, guarantee freedom of speech, including of the media and every Ugandan’s right to practice their profession, in this case journalism.
Prof Twinomugisha implored journalists to stand firm and discharge their duties as the Fourth Estate of informing citizens and put the other arms of government - the Executive, Legislature and Judiciary - to account for their actions or omissions.
Journalist and blogger Angelo Izama, an Open Society Fellow, said in such heated political situation such as that obtaining in Uganda today, it is common for journalists to be targeted or suffer as they are caught in the axis of power contestation between the government and the Opposition.
Sanity, he said, is likely to return when the volatile political situation calms and challenged media houses to stand for independence in spite of stifling police action.
The open violation of journalists’ rights, including arbitrary arrests, detention and release without charge, is a roll back of one of the NRM government’s main feats. President Museveni’s government has been credited for initially protecting media freedoms and liberalising the airwaves, enabling broadcast, Online and print media to flourish.
After failing to discreetly control the media content, the government has periodically targeted critical journalists and closed media houses, the latest being in 2013 of Monitor Publications and Red Pepper Publication. These followed the more than year-long closure, in 2009, of the Central Broadcasting Station radio in the wake of that year’s pro-Kabaka riots.
In the election week, the government extended its infringement on the media space by disabling social media sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Wataspp although thousands of Ugandans quickly circumvented the blockade and navigated the sites through secure personal networks (VPN).
Internationally, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RSF) organisation has in two separate statements within weeks condemned the State’s highhandedness. Uganda ranked 97th out of 180 countries in RSF’s 2015 World Press Freedom Index.
And the Committee to Protect Journalists, a media freedom organisation headquartered in New York, US too criticised the bruatlisation of journalists for simply doing their work.
Uganda continues to receive widespread negative international publicity for the overbearing police actions.
In the run up to the February 18 vote, the Human Rights Watch released a report critical of the government and warned of the “chilling effect” on media of police excesses.
The Constitutional Court in a ruling last October, held that errant police officers can and should be sued in their individual capacities even when on official duty unlike before when they were legally cushioned by the Attorney General’s representation.
Police and the media
May, 20 2013: Police besiege Daily Monitor premises in Namuwongo, Kampala and also the premises of Red Pepper in Namanve in their bid to retrieve a letter that was written by former spy chief David Sejusa about President Museveni’s alleged succession plan by his son dubbed the “Muhoozi project”.
Daily Monitor’s two sister radios stations—KFM and Dembe FM were also switched off air. The premises were re-opened after 11 days.
September 10, 2009: In the wake of the Buganda riots after Buganda Kingdom prime minister was blocked from visiting Kayunga District, government closed four local radio stations, including Central Broadcasting Station (CBS), Radio Akaboozi, Radio Sapientia and Radio Suubi, for allegedly inciting violence that rocked most parts of Buganda.
Also banned following the Buganda riots were the open radio talk shows known as Ebimeeza.
January 12, 2015: The recent police brutality against an individual journalist happened when Old Kampala Police Station DPC Joram Mwesigye, assaulted WBS TV journalist Andrew Lwanga while in line of duty.
Mr Lwanga has since been incapacitated as his spine cord was fractured.